Quvenzhané Wallis is an Annie for the modern age. She has the street smarts to navigate New York, sprinting across subway platforms and pedaling down streets on a Citi Bike, and the business savvy to come up with creative solutions to her financial predicaments. When she needs to get her hands on $40 fast, she knows where to find it: at the bodega across the street, where the owner will pay the girl to doctor the dates on expiring bottles of milk and orange juice.
The title character in Will Gluck’s funny, but uneven and overlong, update of the musical “Annie” isn’t just cute and sweet — that’s not what we want in our protagonists anymore. She’s cute and sweet and scrappy and droll.
John Huston’s 1982 version and the musical it was based on took place during the Great Depression, and while elements of that movie are undoubtedly dated, this new rendition of “Annie” could feel even more antiquated, and sooner, with its Auto-Tuned songs, references to memes, depictions of flashy technology and jokes about cellphone companies spying on customers.
The most basic outline of the plot remains the same. Annie lives in a foster home with a handful of other girls under the supervision of the mean-spirited boozehound Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz, turning in a performance that feels thoroughly false). Annie’s path crosses coincidentally with that of Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a mayoral candidate, Purell obsessive and self-made billionaire. In an effort to soften his prickly image, Will takes in Annie. And the girl, smooth operator that she is, repays him by mugging adorably for the paparazzi.
Eleven-year-old Wallis scored an Academy Award nomination in 2012 for her role in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and she has no trouble carrying her speaking scenes. But the musical interludes are more problematic; she and many of the other actors sound digitally processed. The only performer who doesn’t sound like he had his pitch perfected is Foxx, who has an amazing voice but looks so serious and impassioned during his big solo, he appears to be starring in an R&B video.
The pop star Sia and producer Greg Kurstin contributed to the soundtrack, reworking the original songs and penning new tracks, including the Golden Globe-nominated “Opportunity,” sung by Wallis. Some of the updates are better than others. “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” is a fun track sung by the foster kids, who use the sounds of banging mops and stomping feet as instruments. But the attempt to turn “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” into a dance song is a misfire that doesn’t work in the movie and won’t fare better at a club.
“Annie” can feel a bit edgy for a kid’s movie. When one of the girls asks what “hard-knock life” means, an older roommate glibly tells her, “it means our life sucks.” But, more problematically, it’s too long for a kid’s movie. A couple of the songs could easily be cut, and some of that time would have been better spent focusing on the relationship between Annie and Will, whose bond at times comes across as artificial.
There are some very funny moments in the movie, even for grown-ups, including a video of Will that goes viral. The absurd machinations of Will’s smarmy political adviser are also good for a laugh. But ultimately, “Annie” is so fixated on being current that it will never be more than a passing fancy.
PG. At area theaters. Contains some mild language and rude humor. 118 minutes.